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Knowledge as an end in itself, an ultimate goal

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Randrew
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One question that bothered me before I studied Objectivism, and still bothers me today, is: can knowledge be considered the highest value, the end goal which all other goals support? Specific kinds of knowledge I have in mind are physics (e.g. the nature of matter, energy, fundamental forces), biology and evolution (so that we may better know the origin and nature of Man), and Mathematics (the topics here are too numerous to list.)

Objectivism gives a pretty clear answer to this question: no, life is the only end in itself, the only ultimate goal. From my readings in VOS and OPAR, I think I have a decent understanding of the arguments supporting this claim. Additionally, when I try to write down my argument to support the idea of knowledge as the highest goal, I find that I never even had an argument in the first place, just the "feeling" or "intuition" that it might be true.

Since I am now aware of the dangers behind using such feeling/intuition as a tool of cognition, I will accept the Objectivist theory until I can either A- come up with an argument in favor of knowledge as the highest value (if such an argument is even possible), or B- get to the root of the emotions that would even lead me to accept such a thesis in the first place.

My questions in this thread are:

1) Has anyone else struggled with this same question, and

2) Does anyone have any psychological insight as to why I (or anyone else) would believe in the idea that knowledge is the highest value/goal?

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One question that bothered me before I studied Objectivism, and still bothers me today, is: can knowledge be considered the highest value, the end goal which all other goals support? 

Additionally, when I try to write down my argument to support the idea of knowledge as the highest goal, I find that I never even had an argument in the first place, just the "feeling" or "intuition" that it might be true. 

My questions in this thread are:

1) Has anyone else struggled with this same question, and

2) Does anyone have any psychological insight as to why I (or anyone else) would believe in the idea that knowledge is the highest value/goal?

I would say I have also struggled with that question when trying to write my essays for what my goals are for scholarship contests. I kept trying to defend the idea of pursuing "academia" and that actually being the end goal.

I think what Objectivism says is that that is a redundant idea, because the only way to achieve the highest value of life is to pursue knowledge. We could not live without knowledge, although some people get stunted at different levels of integration of that knowledge, and some people soar to great heights in their level of knowledge. Pursuing the highest knowledge which you can obtain, ensures you a better quality of life, it is a means to the end purpose or goal of life. Without life, knowledge would hardly be relevant. You can't place any value above life, but that does not mean that knowledge does not have value. It is not a concrete though. By that I mean, it is not a set amount or quantity that you can actually attain and own. The constant pursuit of knowledge is just that, a constant pursuit, and can't be an end for that reason. It needs direction and clarification to make sense as an end, such as what you intend to do with that knowledge.

Does that help?

Edited: for clarity and spelling

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The highest goal is happyness. Knowledge is useful to you, to the extent that it can further your happyness. Think about it from an academic perspective: you might enjoy physics and dedicate your life to studying it - would you then say that 'knowledge' is your highest goal? If so, then why do you not take an interest in Sumerology, Neuroscience, or Philology? All of these fields contain a great deal of accumulated human knowledge, and yet you have no desire to study them. Why? Probably because what you seek is not 'knowledge' in general, but rather knowledge of the specific things which you happen to find interesting. You wouldnt pursue knowledge relating to a field you didnt enjoy studying (unless there were other motivating factors), because that wouldnt be likely you make you particularly happy.

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Dominique,

Without life, knowledge would hardly be relevant. You can't place any value above life
The idea I was considering was that the purpose of life would be to gain more knowledge and enjoy the knowing (the "enlightenment," so to speak.) Meaning, life is necessary in order to obtain knowledge, it is a precondition for gaining knowledge, but it is only a means to an end.

The constant pursuit of knowledge is just that, a constant pursuit, and can't be an end for that reason.

But life requires a constant process of sustainance. Does that nullify its ability to be an end in itself?

It needs direction and clarification to make sense as an end, such as what you intend to do with that knowledge.

Like I said earlier, I think it is possible to enjoy the knowledge for its own sake. What you said is a part of Objectivist philosophy, but it presupposes that life is the only end in itself, which is the very claim I'm questioning right now.

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Dominique,

The idea I was considering was that the purpose of life would be to gain more knowledge and enjoy the knowing (the "enlightenment," so to speak.)  Meaning, life is necessary in order to obtain knowledge, it is a precondition for gaining knowledge, but it is only a means to an end.

Then knowledge=happiness="life" and I still say it's redundant. The opposite being the pursuit of ignorance="anti-life"=anti-reality. Can a person have a purpose in life that is anything other than knowledge if their highest value is their own life? Here again it depends what kind of knowledge you would consider "enlightenment"

But life requires a constant process of sustainance.  Does that nullify its ability to be an end in itself?
Bad phrasing on my part probably, good point. Perhaps happiness is what I meant. I think we need a clearer definition of terms and that would clear this right up. In the Ayn Rand Lexicon under "purpose' it states that productive work is the central purpose of a rational man's life-so if your productive work was studying and gathering knowledge, what would you be producing? knowledge right?
Like I said earlier, I think it is possible to enjoy the knowledge for its own sake.  What you said is a part of Objectivist philosophy, but it presupposes that life is the only end in itself, which is the very claim I'm questioning right now.

Life is not the only end, but the ultimate value or "end" The Lexicon entry for life states that since only a living organism can have goals, life gives meaning to purpose, goals, ends, and as such it is the standard by which all other goals or ends are measured. It subsumes knowledge.

Stillness is the antithesis of life. Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action[acquiring knowledge]. The goal of that action [knowledge] the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through it's every moment, is the organisms life" [ibid.,7; pb 16]
-brackets are my additions

also

The maintenance of one's life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one's life as one's ultimate value, and one's happiness as one's highest purpose, are two aspects of the same achievement ... It is by experienceing happiness that one lives one's life ... But the relationship of cause to effect cannot be reversed. It is only by accepting "man's life" as one's primary ...not by taking "happiness" [insert here knowledge]as some undefined irreducible primary and then attempting to live by it's guidance.-Ibid.,25;pb 29
brackets mine.

Edit: added last quote and fixed some spelling

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2) Does anyone have any psychological insight as to why I (or anyone else) would believe in the idea that knowledge is the highest value/goal?

I think it's an example of confusing the means with the end, or in other words: it is the fallacy of an intermediate objective obscuring the ultimate goal. If you pursue an objective--be it knowledge, food, political power, peace, or whatever else--with determination for a long time, the strong emotions you develop for it might make you forget about why you began pursuing it in the first place. This is how a lower-level objective sometimes "sneaks" into the place of a higher-level one.

Allow me to offer an antidote as well: Just remember that this fallacy is the starting point of Kant's entire philosophy. He wants to pursue "pure reason" as opposed to practical reason--he wants to think without remembering why he began thinking in the first place. He severs reason from its purpose, and thus turns it from a servant of life into a wanton autocrat that deals in noumenal things-in-themselves, categorical duties, and disinterested pleasures.

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Dominique,

Can a person have a purpose in life that is anything other than knowledge if their highest value is their own life?
Take an Objectivist engineer, for example. His highest value is his own life, but knowledge is *not* his purpose. His purpose is design/implementation/etc., and the knowledge he obtains is a means to the end that is the ultimate product. What I'm talking about is people who pursue knowledge that is not yet applied, that can (supposedly) be enjoyed for its own sake.

In the Ayn Rand Lexicon under "purpose' it states that productive work is the central purpose of a rational man's life-so if your productive work was studying and gathering knowledge, what would you be producing? knowledge right?

I don't have OPAR on me now (I'll cite it later), but Peikoff (summarizing Rand) specifically states that knowledge can be an individual's central purpose in life so long as he realizes that the knowledge is not something to be gained for its own sake, but must be applied somehow in order for his work to have had meaning, i.e. to have served the ultimate end of life in some way.

CF:

I think it's an example of confusing the means with the end, or in other words: it is the fallacy of an intermediate objective obscuring the ultimate goal.
This is a good point, except that the question I'm raising in this thread is "why is life the only ultimate goal?", as opposed to life's being a means to another end. I'm examining the very issue of ultimate goals in the first place.

Which raises another question: do people have a choice in what their ultimate goal is? In other words, does an "ivory tower" scholar/scientist who thinks he's pursuing and enjoying knowledge for its own sake actually have life as his ultimate goal, whether or not he admits it to himself? I would think the answer to this would be "no, men do have a choice in what they take as their ultimate goal (and, perhaps, there is only one proper ultimate goal to choose.)" I am open to other considerations, as I just thought of this now.

Also, CF:

If you pursue an objective--be it knowledge, food, political power, peace, or whatever else--with determination for a long time, the strong emotions you develop for it might make you forget about why you began pursuing it in the first place. This is how a lower-level objective sometimes "sneaks" into the place of a higher-level one.

Very interesting :confused: . I will certainly consider this as a possible root of my conflict.

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One question that bothered me before I studied Objectivism, and still bothers me today, is: can knowledge be considered the highest value, the end goal which all other goals support?  Specific kinds of knowledge I have in mind are physics (e.g. the nature of matter, energy, fundamental forces), biology and evolution (so that we may better know the origin and nature of Man), and Mathematics (the topics here are too numerous to list.)

Objectivism gives a pretty clear answer to this question: no, life is the only end in itself, the only ultimate goal.  From my readings in VOS and OPAR, I think I have a decent understanding of the arguments supporting this claim.  Additionally, when I try to write down my argument to support the idea of knowledge as the highest goal, I find that I never even had an argument in the first place, just the "feeling" or "intuition" that it might be true. 

Since I am now aware of the dangers behind using such feeling/intuition as a tool of cognition, I will accept the Objectivist theory until I can either A- come up with an argument in favor of knowledge as the highest value (if such an argument is even possible), or B- get to the root of the emotions that would even lead me to accept such a thesis in the first place.

My questions in this thread are:

1) Has anyone else struggled with this same question, and

2) Does anyone have any psychological insight as to why I (or anyone else) would believe in the idea that knowledge is the highest value/goal?

In a certain sense I don't think there is anything wrong with regarding gaining knowledge as your highest value. I dont think it should be regarded as more important than your life, (ie don't die in order to learn something). But it can be your highest rational value.

I don't think anything is wrong with pursuing a career that allows you to pursue knowledge that you find interesting, even if you are not directly involved in developing applications of that knowledge. Or there are no current, immediate applications of the knowledge. Other people may develop applications for it. If your source of emotional satisfaction is just from knowing it then I see nothing wrong with just studying it and not getting directly involved in other applications. It could be potentially useful. Even if you don't have any specific applications in mind at the time of studying it. And it could be of value to other people who pursue knowledge "for its own sake", meaning without specific applications in mind.

Even if the applications/potential applications of an area you find interesting are sort of in doubt, if you go into academia and also teach then that is how you make your money - so you can just study whatever you want to without having to justify its worth to others.

I'm not sure if this helps or not but it is an issue I have thought about and it sounds like you might be having similar concerns.

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In other words, does an "ivory tower" scholar/scientist who thinks he's pursuing and enjoying knowledge for its own sake actually have life as his ultimate goal, whether or not he admits it to himself?

His pleasure/pain mechanism--which is outside of his volitional control--responds to whether or not his is achieving life; his emotions--which are shaped by his volitional value-judgments--respond to whether or not he is achieving knowledge. If a significant conflict ever emerges between that which enhances his life and that which enhances his knowledge, he will face an unpleasant contradiction which makes happiness impossible to him.

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CF,

If a significant conflict ever emerges between that which enhances his life and that which enhances his knowledge, he will face an unpleasant contradiction

This is another possible way I considered to resolve my conflict (that is, if a conflict between life and knowledge arose, life should take preference, so life must be the highest value.)

However, I was not able to come up with any such conflicts. Can you give me some examples of what you might mean?

Part of the idea I wanted to present in this thread was that, although knowledge could be the highest value, sustenance and flourishment of life are necessary preconditions for achieving such a goal, and they must be dealt with first. It seems like a pretty simple progression to me, although maybe I'm not being concrete enough.

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However, I was not able to come up with any such conflicts.  Can you give me some examples of what you might mean?

  • Assume that our scientist falls in love. A romantic relationship, however, does not advance his knowledge as much as time spent in his laboratory does, so according to his "official" value hierarchy, he never ought to date women, let alone marry one. His life, however, is not complete without a romantic partner, so when he meets a woman who corresponds to his ideals, his body will respond to her; he will physically want her. If he does not date her, he will be lovesick; if he does, he will feel like a loser because he is wasting time on "unimportant" things instead of gaining knowledge.
  • Assume that our scientist becomes excited about researching a very specialized field that has no practical use. No one is willing to fund his research. He has to choose between indulging his desire and living in poverty, perhaps on the verge of starvation, on the one hand--and forgoing the knowledge he is after on the other.
  • Assume that our scientist wants to learn about death. According to his hierarchy of values, he ought to kill some people so he can study how they die. If no one volunteers, he ought to murder his "study material." But if he lives in a just society, he will be tried and executed for doing so.

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  • 3 weeks later...
In a certain sense I don't think there is anything wrong with regarding gaining knowledge as your highest value. I dont think it should be regarded as more important than your life, (ie don't die in order to learn something). But it can be your highest rational value.

What sense is that?

The reason that your life is and must be your ultimate value, the goal that is the at the foundation of all others, is that without it you cannot have or pursue any goals.

Anything that you decide to do with your life must serve your life, not act against it, or you will cease to be able to decide at all.

What do you mean by rational value? As opposed to an irrational value? Do you then mean that life is an irrational value?

Even for an Ivory Tower intellectual, his pursuit of knowledge IS serving his life; it is how he makes his living, no? For an example of the irrationality and depravity of an intellectual that wishes to be free of the demands of "mere matter" in order to further his intellectual pursuits, read the story of Dr. Stadler and Project X in Atlas Shrugged.

A side note: by life, I do not mean base survival; you are a man (or woman) and if you wish to live, you must live as a man. The survival method of a plant or an animal is not appropriate to a man, who must live, not by the passive absorption of nutrients or the brute will of instinct and muscle, but by the use of his mind in whatever capacity he possesses.

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What sense is that?

The reason that your life is and must be your ultimate value, the goal that is the at the foundation of all others, is that without it you cannot have or pursue any goals. 

Anything that you decide to do with your life must serve your life, not act against it, or you will cease to be able to decide at all.

What do you mean by rational value?  As opposed to an irrational value? Do you then mean that life is an irrational value?

Even for an Ivory Tower intellectual, his pursuit of knowledge IS serving his life; it is how he makes his living, no?  For an example of the irrationality and depravity of an intellectual that wishes to be free of the demands of "mere matter" in order to further his intellectual pursuits, read the story of Dr. Stadler and Project X in Atlas Shrugged.

A side note: by life, I do not mean base survival; you are a man (or woman) and if you wish to live, you must live as a man.  The survival method of a plant or an animal is not appropriate to a man, who must live, not by the passive absorption of nutrients or the brute will of instinct and muscle, but by the use of his mind in whatever capacity he possesses.

I said knowledge should not be regarded as a higher value than your life, so we are in agreement there.

A value is rational if it does in fact contribute to the life of the person valuing it. In other words, if it is good by the standard of his life. It is irrational if it is harmful to him. My point was that you can try to support your life in a way that gives you alot of opportunity to study things you are interested in.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Knowledge itself cannot be a highest goal. If you pursue certain kinds of knowledge and that makes you happy, happiness is still the highest value. If you made knowledge your highest goal qua knowledge, you would be essentially trying to make yourself omniscient. Once you divorce knowledge from the applications it has to your life (which is exactly what you do when you pursue knowledge qua knowledge) you go after any minute and trivial detail just as much as the things that impact your life. Knowing how many twigs are on a pine tree becomes just as important has how to catch a fish or grow corn. The number of hairs on your neighbor's head becomes just as important as how to build your house. Because after all, all knowledge is equal if knowledge is your highest value.

Happiness has to be the highest value and knowledge has to be the means to obtain and sustain it otherwise you just have a random, rampant quest for any bit of truth that in normal circumstances, you wouldn't care about.

What you have to ask when it comes to knowledge is: What good does this do me? and when you ask that question, you are implying happiness as your highest value.

Edited by BreathofLife
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